Delivering bad news

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, Co-Chair of the PRCA Corporate Group and Founder & Director at do Different. 

I recently hosted an event for the PRCA Corporate Group, where we discussed ‘delivering bad news’.

With many thanks to two of my clients: Aisha Cuthbert, Head of Communications at One Housing, and Andy Taylor, Head of External Affairs at Network Rail, as well as Conservatives in Communications patron Kulveer Ranger, Global Head of Strategy and Communications (Financial Services & Insurance) at Atos, for your contributions.

In brainstorming topics for our first event of the year, we felt that 2021 – as we finally emerge from the global pandemic and adjust to the full impact of Brexit – is shaping up to be a challenging economic environment for both large and small businesses alike. You only had to hear the Chancellor’s Budget – where he revealed a titanic shift in policy towards a higher tax, bigger borrowing, expanded state – to understand the difficulties that are facing us.

While many of the tough decisions, such as making redundancies, have been postponed again until after the furlough scheme ends, we believe corporate communications professionals may well find themselves tasked with articulating and delivering bad news as their organisations navigate these challenges. 

So, we discussed how to mitigate the negative impact on our companies, and salvage reputation when things are going south. Hopefully, it was a useful exercise for those starting out, those who have recently switched roles, and even for those seasoned pros to pick-up new tips and share ideas. 

This piece was written for do Different.

2021: A review

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, spoke to Matt Honeycombe-Foster at POLITICO about the future of the industry. The image below includes the comments that were used for his article, otherwise you’ll find the full transcript as a blog post.

Do you predict public affairs/comms industry will carry on with bits of the ‘new normal’ even as Covid comes under control?

Much of what’s taken place over the past nine months has been in the works for a while e.g., living healthier, working remotely, shopping online, leveraging technology and thinking digital.  

What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations.

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, sea change or paradigm shift.  

Even now that we have vaccines, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms and become more resilient.

That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships; we absolutely need that face-to-face time. That’s certainly true for new start-ups like do Different.

I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events for the PRCA Corporate Group and Conservatives in Communications again soon. Zoom fatigue has certainly crept in.

What were the big lessons of 2020 that are likely to stick?  

1) Trust in your people and partners and ignore all talk of presenteeism.

The key to making remote working work is for managers to trust their colleagues. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

And, I believe people have got it right. They have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the pandemic.  

2) Corporate reputation remains king.

While some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by is external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

What are the main political and policy battles you’re watching out for in 2021?

If you thought 2020 was going to be a wild ride wait until 2021.  

The fight against coronavirus will continue, the impact of Brexit – either with or without a deal – will follow closely behind, the new US administration will push a whole different agenda, the Scottish, local and mayoral elections could be quite challenging for many, the Nationalists will continue to push for another independence referendum and all this while unemployment and debt soars.

Senior leaders need public affairs partners to help promote and defend their business interests, but also PR support to build their brands, earn trust, protect reputation and generate new leads. Advocacy and communications have never been more important. Thankfully, practitioners have demonstrated their value.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

When should business take a stance?

PRCA Corporate Group event hosted by Adam Honeysett-Watts | Wednesday, December 2, 2020 | 4:15-5:00pm

Pandemics aside, 2020 has been a tumultuous year politically and ideologically. Brexit has never been far from the headlines, racial justice demonstrators have swelled streets across the globe, and public debate has become ever-more polarised on issues from vaccinations to lockdown freedoms to trans rights.

In October, the BBC introduced new guidelines that prohibited journalists from attending ‘controversial’ events such as marches or demonstrations. Insiders have since confirmed that Pride events and Black Lives Matter marches would likely be included in this directive. In September, the CEO of crypto exchange Coinbase, Brian Armstrong, released a statement explaining that his company did not take a stance on political or societal issues, as it distracts from their business focus, and offered staff who disagreed with this position the option to take voluntary redundancy (an offer 5% of their workforce has since accepted).

These episodes raise interesting challenges for corporate communications professionals. With so many polarising issues on the news pages this year, when and how should your organisation take a stance? When does a matter of principle become a matter for business? With inclusive employment practices now higher on corporate agendas, executives must acknowledge space within their organisations for people from across the political, ideological and religious spectrums. Taking a stance risks alienating some, but taking no stance at all brings with it the potential for even bigger issues, as Coinbase and the BBC are finding.

In this virtual event – to mark the re-launch of the PRCA Corporate Group – we will explore how corporate communications pros can help their organisations to identify when to take a stand, how to remain authentic and how to navigate the potential risks and benefits.